Nelson Mandela and Saths Cooper: Two Generations of Anti-apartheid Activists Share a Prison Cell Block and Become a President

12/16/2013 03:26 pm ET | Updated Feb 15, 2014

The name Sathasivian Cooper may not be as famous internationally as that of Nelson Rohihlhla Mandela, but the younger man fondly called "Saths" and the older man affectionately nicknamed "Madiba" (meaning "troublemaker") were both rebels and anti-apartheid activists at the same time in their native South Africa, labeled as terrorists and incarcerated in the same cell block in the notorious Robben Island Maximum Security Prison off the coast of Cape Town.

With the death of the iconic former South African president unleashing memories from a plethora of his associates, I want to bring to light the story of the much younger activist.

Cooper, now 63, followed a similar path of rebellion against racism and also rose to a position of presidency, as the first African head of the International Union of Psychological Sciences (IUPsyS), a prestigious global organization with more than 80 member countries.

I've known Saths Cooper for years, in my role on the board of the International Association of Applied Psychology and as Saths' biographer for a chapter in an upcoming book, International Psychology Pioneers: Portraits and Perspectives and producer of a video profile of him.

Cooper has reported his reflections about Mandela; here, I want to share recollections Saths has told me and my observations about the similarities and differences between the two men.

While the prison cell neighbors played tennis and jogged together over a five-year period from 1977-1982, there was an intellectual and political divide. As Saths describes it, the 50-something Mandela was curious and skeptical about the activities of the 20-something activists.

"Many interactions were to help him understand what was happening from the young people," Saths told me. "He was learning from us. He wanted to understand us -- the fieriness of us, the resistance that we were a part of, and what we stood up against -- the oppression."

Mandela was intrigued by this youth who challenged the prison guards by refusing to follow demeaning rules like taking off one's hat just because the guard wished it.

Saths also refused to be called by his first name by his captors. "That was too familiar, the guards are not my friends," he told me. "So I insisted they call me by my last name, 'Cooper.' They did it, because I gave them no other option. They never used my first name. They always used the surname. I would not let them become familiar or verbally abuse me."

The younger man also learned from the elder. "He taught me patience," Saths told me, "that certain things can be done if you are patient rather than wanting to change things now or yesterday; things will happen if you plan and execute them properly."

Patience is what got Mandela through the endless prison days, says Saths. It was evident from the first thing Mandela said to him the day after he was put in the same cell block.

"Mandela said to me, 'Let's make an appointment to have a talk session, and we should talk about your organization, and let's do it in December.' It was October, so why do it in December, I wanted to know? That was his way of dealing with being in prison -- having a schedule, setting an appointment ahead two months later, to make the time go with meaning and have something to look forward to."

"Also, it was his way to say you will have two months to think about it and maybe your responses will shift."

There was much to think about and discuss, given their differing political stances. As a young founder of the Black People's Convention, Saths had opposed the "multi-racial" policies of Mandela's Africa National Congress.

While just a teenager, Saths had helped young student activist Steve Biko (memorialized in the movie Cry Freedom) create the Black Consciousness Movement which rekindled opposition to apartheid when the African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress liberation movements were banned in April 1960, after the infamous Sharpeville massacre and after Nelson Mandela went underground and eventually was imprisoned.

Ultimately both came to embrace non-racialism, as enshrined in the South African constitution.

Striking similarities between the two generations of men who changed the face of their country. and impact the world, help in understanding courage and leadership in the struggle for human rights and social justice. They both:

  • Value education. Mandela attended the University College of Fort Hare -- equivalent to Harvard or Oxford -- and studied law at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Cooper also studied at the University of Witwatersrand, after his prison release, and completed his Ph.D. at Boston University in the U.S. while on a Fulbright scholarship.
  • Studied law. Mandela set up the first black legal practice in South Africa. Cooper studied law but discontinued in that field after he saw what the apartheid law meant, as an accused and convicted person. Instead, psychology promised a key to freedom, revealing "how the tools of oppression can be a tool for liberation by understanding divides and creating bridges." Interestingly, Saths' two sons now are in the law field; his daughter studies psychology and women's issues.
  • Sought to understand the nature of conflict. Through boxing as a youth, Mandela learned about the "science" and strategy of a fight. Cooper was similarly drawn to a confrontation, his favorite musical being West Side Story, similarly not for the violence but for the "spectacle."
  • Appreciated theatrics. Mandela dressed in disguises (as a chauffeur, gardener and chef) to evade authorities, and also notoriously created a spectacle when the then-president of South Africa sported a Springboks shirt when presenting the trophy to his country's team at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Saths was involved in theatre from the late 1960s and early 1970s, as co-founder of the Natal Drama Foundation and the South African Black Theatre Union, and later as chair of the Soweto Dance Theatre Company from the early 1990s.
  • Learned to listen. Mandela learned about listening as the son of a tribal councilor who was "groomed to counsel rulers of the tribe," as he recounts in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. In Cooper's path as a psychologist, listening is an essential tool to effective counseling, leadership and peaceful resolution.
  • Have similar American heroes. Mandela praised George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., for their work for liberty, justice and civil rights. Cooper also admires Lincoln and King in addition to other advocates of non-violent protest like Mahatma Gandhi.
  • Have long-term ties to Reverend Desmond Tutu. Saths first met Tutu (credited with coining the term "Rainbow Nation") in 1983 when the outspoken archbishop was Secretary General of the South African Council of Churches and Cooper was creating a national forum of anti-apartheid organizations in which Tutu was involved. Saths later became Director and Chair of the Archbishop Tutu Scholarship Fund in the U.S. "From Desmond I get a sense of serenity and peace," Cooper told me.
  • Made personal sacrifices in their early activism. Both men divorced their first wives, though in later years established long-term unions with powerful women, Mandela with his third wife, Graça Machel -- the widow of a former president of Mozambique -- and Cooper with a noted South African psychologist who has a major leadership role in the psychology organization he now heads.
  • Started out as student activists. Mandela's early protest against authorities and resentment of absolute power was sparked while as a Student Representative at the University of Fort Hare, when a protest over the food at the student canteen led to a boycott of elections. Cooper was similarly swept into campus politics, becoming a founding member of the South African Students Organization that later evolved into the Black Consciousness Movement in 1969, advocating for a Black identity as opposed to multiracialism. He later took part in labor movement strikes of 1973 which resulted in an arrest for assaulting a policeman, and another arrest in 1976 for co-organizing rallies supporting Mozambique's liberation from Portugal -- for which he was sentenced to 10 years in prison under the Terrorism Act. He was arrested again in 1984 for belonging to a banned organization.
  • Evolved from angry rebels into peaceful unifiers. Mandela, who has described himself as a "hothead," founded the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) yet later became the celebrated voice against violence. Cooper, who always "pushed boundaries," joined student activist Steve Biko to lead the BCM to unify Black, Indian and Colored students in Black pride and empowerment, and staged marches, uprisings and protests that erupted into violence, arrests and ultimately, Biko's death. Later in life, Cooper would embrace more peaceful unity.
As evidence that both men simultaneously became symbols of peace, three months before Mandela became the country's first democratically elected president in 1994, Cooper was instrumental in forming the Psychological Society of South Africa, the country's first psychological organization that accepted members regardless of race or gender and promoted non-participation in oppressive activities or regimes. Just as Mandela unified South Africans on a national and global stage, Cooper is unifying psychologists both internationally in his role as IUPsyS President, and by boosting national prominence through his current initiative to form the Pan African Psychology Union. In 1998, Cooper was the beneficiary of Mandela's South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, when he was declared a "victim of gross human rights violations." Cooper carries on both his own and Mandela's mission for human rights, advocating about poverty among youth, against violence and rape, and for solutions to homelessness and AIDS (a passion of Mandela's after his son's death from the disease). No longer bucking authority, Saths has worked within the system, chairing the South African Government Task Team to Curb Child Pornography and the Ministerial Committee on Health Research Ethics, contributing to changes in legislation such as the Criminal Procedure Act, and advising the military, the police and Combined Committees on Child Abuse and the National Prosecution Authority.

Last year, Saths Cooper received his profession's equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize when the International Union of Psychological Science's 'Achievement Against the Odds Award' recognized his contributions to psychology by overcoming extreme personal hardship in an ongoing pursuit of social justice and human rights for all. The British Psychological Society will confer an Honorary Fellowship upon him at its next conference in May, and the American Psychological Association will honor him at its convention this August for Distinguished Contributions to the International Advancement of Psychology.